Mini LED is at the fore of this year's TV ranges, with the likes of TCL, Philips, LG and Samsung all pursuing the TV backlight technology – but what exactly is it, and why should you even care?
As the name suggests, Mini LED shrinks the LED modules that provide backlighting to LCD screens. LCD pixels can’t illuminate themselves – like OLED can – so they need a light-source behind them to shine through, creating the necessary brightness and color. Because of this extra layer of backlighting, too, the pixels in an LCD display can never be turned all the way off.
This explains why LED-LCD TVs lag so far behind OLED TVs when it comes to both black levels and breadth of contrast. OLED technology is capable of serving up such rich, depthless blacks and lovely wide contrasts between ‘deep black’ and ‘bright white’ because of its lack of backlighting. The organic light-emitting diodes that make up the picture, as the name suggests, emit their own light. That means that when a specific pixel is off, it’s all the way off – it’s not emitting any light at all, and consequently it’s truly black.
- What is OLED? The TV panel tech explained
So the blacks not only lack the inky quality of their OLED equivalents, but if an LCD TV’s backlight is poorly implemented and/or controlled, there can be discernible unevenness to the way the screen describes what should be uniform areas of black. Consider the end credits of many a movie: a black screen with white text scrolling up it. It’s very common for an LCD TV to allow a halo of light to surround the words, or to let its backlight betray ‘bleed’ from the corners of the screen, turning what should be black into a cloudy gray.
No one ever bought a television for how it handles the end credits of a film, it’s true. But this kind of lumpy picture quality is what has increasingly made LCD technology look a little bit backward compared to its shiny OLED competitor.
However, there may yet be a way for LCD technology to reassert itself among the best TVs – and that’s through Mini LED.
Mini LED FAQ
- What is Mini LED? A more efficient and effective way of backlighting an LCD screen.
- What are its advantages? Greater accuracy of backlighting and greater peak brightness.
- Will I be able to see the difference? We reckon so. Improved contrasts and brighter images tend to stand out.
- Are Mini LED TVs expensive? That all depends. TCL has been using MIni LED for a while, and it prices its TVs very aggressively. Both LG and Philips intend to sell their Mini LED TVs for less than their equivalent OLED screens, too.
What is Mini LED?
Mini LED is a more efficient, and more effective way of backlighting an LCD screen.
Officially a diode no bigger than 0.2mm can be classed as ‘mini’ – but this is the consumer electronics industry we’re dealing with here, and you can expect the word ‘mini’ to be used quite loosely. The basic principle, though, is that smaller LED diodes allow for more LED diodes.
Fitting more, and smaller, LED diodes behind the LCD pixels means images can be brighter. It means backlighting control can be more targeted and precise. It should allow for better control, which ought to mean less backlight bleed and stronger contrasts.
Why does Mini LED matter?
If it’s deployed effectively, Mini LED backlighting should allow LCD panels to get much closer to OLED levels of performance than has been possible before. These theoretical advantages are pretty compelling.
And, of course, that’s without OLED’s perceived problems: LED/LCD technology has never been the subject of screen-burn scare stories, nor does it fall prey to the eventual but inevitable drop-off in performance that’s the price of the ‘organic’ element of OLED.
Of course, the success of Mini LED will come down to the way the technology is implemented. There’s a lot of variation in the performance of similarly priced, similarly specified LED-backlit LCD screens - you only have to have a quick glance at our numerous TV reviews to see that. And if some TVs are found wanting when it comes to controlling a few dozen backlight dimming zones, can they really be expected to be any better when they have control of what could be thousands?
Who will sell me a Mini LED TV?
Intrepid Chinese manufacturer TCL was quick out of the blocks in incorporating the technology into its screens, and others are now following suit. LG, Philips and Samsung have all announced Mini LED ranges for 2021.
LG’s Mini LED range – called ‘QNED’ – has immediately become its premium LCD offering, combining Mini LED with quantum dot technology. It’s positioned above the NanoCell LCDs that were previously the company’s most aspirational LCD TVs.
The QNED99 is the hero of the range. It’s an 8K, 120Hz television with full array local dimming (all the better to show off exactly what Mini LED is capable of). It’s available in 65-inch, 75-inch and 86-inch variants. The QNED95 swaps the 120Hz panel of the QNED99 for just 60Hz, but retains the 8K resolution and all the other technological highlights – the 86-inch size aside.
There are a couple of 4K QNED ranges that are similarly arranged. The QNED90 has a 120Hz panel in front of its Mini LED Full Array Local Dimming arrangement, while the QNED85 makes do with a 60Hz panel instead.
Over at Samsung, ‘Neo QLED’ is the way the company is describing its Mini LED televisions for this year. Along with a ‘micro layer’ to guide the light of the Mini LEDs (perhaps as many as 5,000 individual diodes for a single screen) through the quantum dots, Samsung has developed its most precise dimming and power distribution algorithms to date.
All of which bodes well for the chances of the range-topping QN900A. This is an 8K 120Hz screen, available in 65-inch, 75-inch or 85-inch sizes. The QN800A retains the 8K resolution and the selection screen size options – it just doesn’t have quite the whistles-and-bells audio system of the QN900A.
The 4K flag for Samsung is flown by the QN95A and QN90A: these are both 120Hz panels, and both available in 50 in-inch, 55-inch, 65-inch, 75-inch and 85-inch screen sizes. The QN95A also features Samsung’s One Connect box, which takes all connectivity requirements away from the screen itself. There’s also the QN85A, which retains the 120Hz panel of its siblings but doesn’t have quite as many dimming zones or speaker drivers.
Philips, of course, has its unique selling point to bring to the Mini LED party: Ambilight. Both the 9639 and 9506 are available in 65-inch or 75-inch sizes, and both have four-sided Ambilight as well as Mini LED backlights. As with LG, Philips’ Mini LED TVs slot into the television series just below the pricier OLED ranges.
Should I buy a Mini LED TV?
Ultimately, there are a few factors that will determine the success (or otherwise) of individual Mini LED TVs. The panel driver and video processing engine that’s fitted to the television, for instance, will have a huge say in the way the screen performs – and if they’re indifferent components, the sheer complexity of the Mini LED arrangement could conceivably create more, rather than fewer, backlighting and contrast issues.
We shouldn’t have to wait too long to find out, though. The start-of-the-year announcements are all done, the specifics of model ranges and prices are starting to trickle down, and by the middle of the year (at the very latest) we’ll have had our hands (and eyes) on enough Mini LED TVs to know if the technology is a) effective and b) worth your money.